Aquatic & Water Snakes in Ohio (ID + Pictures)

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Lake Erie
Ohio borders Lake Erie in the southern part of the state. NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ohio is situated in the northeastern United States, bordering Lake Erie at its southern shore – it also has an extensive river system, with its longest river being the Ohio River. This state is divided into five regions: the Great Lakes Plains, the Till Plains, the Appalachian Plateau, the Bluegrass region, and the Lake Erie shoreline. The landscape is dominated by low-lying plains and rolling hills – it does not have any extremes in elevation.

With its abundance of waterways, Ohio is home to a variety of aquatic snakes. Although they all live in and near water and rely on it in some way, their ecology and distribution throughout the state vary greatly.

NOTE: The terms ‘semi-aquatic’ and ‘aquatic’ snake are used in this article interchangeably to refer to snakes predominately hunting in aquatic habitats. In this case, ‘aquatic’ does not refer to fully aquatic snake species belonging to the genus Nerodia.

Ohio Water Snakes

1) Common water snake (Nerodia sipedon)

Common water snake
The common water snake’s ventral region is usually cream, reddish, or yellow-colored. Ben Meredyk / CC BY 4.0
  • Native to eastern and central North America
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Order: Squamata
  • Conservation status: Least concern

The common water snake can grow to 135 cm (4 ft 5 in) in length, with females typically being larger than males. This species is thick-bodied with a distinct arrow-shaped head. Individuals show considerable variation in color; the ventral region may be yellow, cream, or even reddish-colored, while the dorsal region is brown or gray with dark crossbands. The coloration of this snake darkens with age, making older individuals more tricky to identify.

Common water snakes are widespread in Ohio and, being a generalist species, will occupy any suitable body of water. Individuals often select locations where they can bask on logs or rocks. Juveniles have been found to reside in cooler areas than adults, with gravid females in particular choosing warm locations with plenty of opportunities to bask. The diet of this species consists of fish, frogs, salamanders, and carrion.

As well as being a fierce predator, the common water snake is prey for a number of species such as birds, raccoons, and foxes. It displays a number of escape mechanisms, such as dropping from vegetation, diving underwater, or rapidly swimming away. If caught, this species will lash out with its teeth and secretes a noxious substance from its musk glands.

2) Plain-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster)

Plain-bellied water snake
Plain-bellied water snakes prefer to live in areas with permanent water bodies and plenty of vegetation surrounding it. Sydney Dragon / CC BY 4.0
  • Native to the southeastern US
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Order: Squamata
  • Conservation status: Least concern

The plain-bellied water snake has a stout build and usually reaches 76 – 122 cm (2 ft 6 in – 4 ft) in length, although records of 140 cm (4 ft 7 in) have been recorded. The name of this species is due to the lack of patterning on the ventral region – this area is plain yellow or orange. The dorsum is green-gray or reddish-brown in color, although juveniles show some patterning in the form of dark spots and bands.

The range of Nerodia erythrogaster is very limited in Ohio, with populations only being found in Williams County. Although it was once more widespread, agriculture has damaged much of its preferred habitat. Suitable areas for this species are permanent water bodies with plenty of surrounding vegetation – the snake uses this for basking, providing it with an easy escape route into the water should it feel threatened.

Plain-bellied water snakes feed almost exclusively underwater, capturing fishes and amphibians such as tadpoles and salamanders. Individuals are typically diurnal, although may shift to nocturnal hunting during the height of summer. The narrow head shape of this species has been suggested to aid the snake in hunting among dense aquatic vegetation.

3) Queen snake (Regina septemvittata)

Queen snake on rock
Queen snakes are not venomous and their teeth rarely do any damage. Joshua Boyle / CC BY 4.0
  • Native to the temperate region of North America
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Order: Squamata
  • Conservation status: Least concern

The queen snake is known by several names, such as the banded water snake, moon snake, or pale snake. Individuals generally reach lengths of 38 – 61cm (1 ft 3 in – 2 ft), however, record lengths of 92 cm (3 ft) have been found. The dorsal scales are dark brown, with some dark lateral stripes seen in some individuals. There is a cream stripe down each side, and the belly is cream with two dark stripes running down to the tail.

Queen snakes prefer slow-moving water over rocky substrate. In Ohio, their distribution is scattered, with populations being found predominantly in the north-east, the south-west, and the center of the state. These snakes are dietary specialists, feeding only on molting crayfish – research has found that queen snakes have a particular preference for rock crayfish.

Regina septemvittata is not venomous, and although it will bite when caught, its teeth rarely cause any real damage. For this reason, flight is generally this snake’s go-to antipredator strategy: this involves dropping from vegetation or diving into water. As snakes are cold-blooded, their ability to move can be influenced by their temperature – warmer snakes can thus flee faster than cold snakes.

4) Eastern ribbon snake (Thamnophis saurita)

Common ribbon snake
It is thought that eastern ribbon snakes eat more in the summer and fall due to the need to build reserves for winter. Lauren McLaurin / CC BY 4.0
  • Native to the northeastern US
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Order: Squamata
  • Conservation status: Least concern

The eastern ribbon snake is a long, slender snake that can reach up to 90 cm (3 ft) in length. The coloration of this species is dark, with three prominent lateral yellow stripes and a white upper lip. The head is reddish brown in color, with a thin black line extending back from the eye, and a vertical white bar in front of the eye.

Thamnophis saurita can be found in northern and eastern Ohio, where it resides on the periphery of lakes, bogs, and marshes. The diet of the ribbon snake has been found to include amphibians such as frogs and tadpoles, fishes, and caterpillars – individuals feed more during summer and fall, likely due to the increased availability of prey and the need to build reserves for winter.

Females produce an average of fourteen young per brood and may have several broods in one year. This species does not lay eggs but instead gives birth to live young, which are precocial and do not receive any parental care whatsoever.

5) Copperbelly water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta)

Copperbelly water snake
The copperbelly water snake’s diet mainly consists of frogs and tadpoles. Peter Paplanus from St. Louis, Missouri, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Native to the northern US
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Order: Squamata
  • Conservation status: Endangered

The copperbelly water snake is large, reaching 90 – 150 cm (3 – 5 ft) in length. This snake is dark in color across the dorsum, with a bright orange or red belly, and is non-venomous. Individuals have narrow heads without a clearly defined neck, and on close examination, red scales around the lip can be observed.

Copperbelly water snakes can be found in northwestern Ohio, in Hardin and Williams counties – although it is unknown whether the Hardin population still exists. The decline of this species may be a result of habitat loss due to agriculture, road construction, and flood control – conservation strategies need to be directed towards the preservation of wetlands and surrounding upland habitat.

Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta feeds predominantly on frogs and tadpoles, which it pursues both on land and in shallow water. As wetlands dry, hunting becomes easier, as potential prey becomes stranded without easy escape routes into water. This snake hibernates from October to April, and although they venture out as the weather warms, they may return underground if conditions turn cold again.

6) Eastern fox snake (Pantherophis gloydi)

Man holding eastern fox snake
If eastern fox snakes are caught, they will secrete musk from their anal glands and may hiss or bite. brendanboyd / CC BY 4.0
  • Native to the upper midwestern US
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Order: Squamata
  • Conservation status: Least concern

The eastern fox snake is large, reaching 90 – 170 cm (3 ft – 5 ft 7 in) in length. It has a relatively slender build with a small, narrow head, and is yellowish-brown in color with alternating dark blotches running down the back and sides. The belly is also yellow with small dark squares forming a checkered pattern, while the head is reddish-brown with a dark stripe between the eyes.

This species resides in wetlands and associated rivers, preferring areas with plenty of vegetation, such as cattails. In Ohio, it can be found on the shores and islands of Lake Erie, and in Lucas, Ottawa, Sandusky, and Erie counties. Females require areas of decaying vegetation or woody debris in which to lay their eggs.

When threatened, eastern fox snakes shake their tails. If caught they secrete musk from their anal glands, and may also hiss and bite, although they are non-venomous. This species constricts its prey, consuming small mammals, frogs, and birds.

7) Lake Erie water snake (Nerodia sipedon insularum)

Lake Erie water snake
The Lake Erie water snake, as its name suggests, can be found along the southern shoreline of Lake Erie in Ohio. Reuven Martin / No copyright
  • Endemic to Lake Erie
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Order: Squamata
  • Conservation status: Least concern

The Lake Erie water snake is medium-sized, with males growing to 59 – 71 cm (1 ft 11 in – 2 ft 4 in) and females growing to 80 – 88 cm (2 ft 7 in – 2 ft 11 in). Individuals range in color from plain gray to gray with brown bands across the dorsum, and the underside is yellow or white. The coloration of this species allows it to be well camouflaged from both predators and prey.

This species is limited to the southern shoreline of Lake Erie in Ohio, where it basks and hides amongst the dolomite and limestone rocks found there. The predominant prey species for Lake Erie water snakes is the round goby, which was introduced to the lake in the 1990s, but individuals often consume amphibians as well.

Although the conservation status of the Lake Erie water snake is considered to be that of least concern, populations may still be affected by habitat destruction and human persecution. Many people believe this species is venomous, so increased education is needed to help prevent further losses.

8) Kirtland’s snake (Clonophis kirtlandii)

Kirtland's snake in hand
Kirtland’s snakes are rare to find and are considered state threatened. Daniel J. Layton / CC BY 4.0
  • Native to the northeastern US
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Order: Squamata
  • Conservation status: Threatened

The Kirtland’s snake is small, reaching just 36 – 62 cm (1 ft 2 in – 2 ft) in length, and is reddish-brown or gray-brown in color, with four rows of dark spots running down the back and sides. The head is usually slightly darker in color, being brown or black, although it may display a light mottled pattern. The underside varies – it can be pink, red, or orange – and has a row of dark spots on either side.

This species is rarely found far from water, preferring moist habitats in close proximity to marshes or ponds. It has a particular preference for grassy areas, where it feeds on a diet composed of earthworms and slugs.

Clonophis kirtlandii is a rare, secretive species, and although it can be found throughout Ohio, it is considered state threatened. The main factors contributing to a decline in this species are the loss and degradation of habitat, urbanization, and habitat fragmentation. Preservation of habitat, as well as careful management of controlled burns and the mowing of grass, have all been suggested as potential conservation strategies.

Charlotte P
About the author

Charlotte P

I'm passionate about wildlife and ecology and hold a degree in Zoology and a masters in Clinical Animal Behaviour. I'm fascinated by the ways animals adapt to their environments and cope with challenges. I am scientifically minded and dedicate much of my time to reading and research into my subject areas.

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